Homo Floresiensis: A Not-Incidental Follow-up

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Sorry, our bad. Image from The Guardian.

In 2004, scientists announced a new relative in our fragile family tree, a (all together now) “hobbit-like creature” known as home floresiensis. It was a small little creature, and there was some evidence that it existed, in the Indonesian jungle, as recently as 12,000 years ago, which would put it not just on the earth the same time as homo sapiens, but in the same era as modern man, as we were beginning to puzzle out farming and society, and creating the modern world.

Indeed, it was even more exciting. There were legends in Flores, where the hobbit was found, of a forest creature, ebu goguIt’s a small creature, sometimes translated roughly as “grandmother” (not literally) or “creature who eats anything”. Older legend had it out there in the jungle primeval, scampering around, always a fleeting glimpse in the mist. It was probably a monkey, or just made up, a tale sifting through the years, but you didn’t have to be a romantic to make the connection. To imagine that not very long ago, one of our distant relatives was still roaming the vast forests, and that our direct and wholly recognizable ancestors would see them. Would they make eye contact? Would there be a dim recognition, a spark of connection? Would there be fear? Would there be hatred? The thought was absurd, but it was tantalizing. There was poetry, and even hope. We could coexist, even as we became dominant.

That didn’t happen. More studies show that floresiensis was wiped out 50,000 years ago, most likely due to man encroaching on its territory. And not the man that was figuring out writing and could recognize a species that was so close to us, even if just in our imagination. It was our species at its most basic, a constant fight for survival and resources. The hobbit was just another competitive ape.

The new understanding of the dates make a lot more coherent sense in terms of the evidence of what we know about modern human dispersal,” says Matthew Tocheri, an author of the study from Lakehead University, Ontario. Over the past 100,000 years, extinction events followed modern humans wherever they went, he said. “It is not always the case the humans are the sole factor,” he added. “But they are often in the right place at the right time to at least be a part of the reason.”

This isn’t to blame our ancestors. That’s what you had to do. It’s just interesting that for millions of years there were many species of humans, intermingling and competing, but having a rough balance. We won, and the rest are all gone.

This is not an incidental follow-up to the global warming post.

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Destruction of World Draws Some Headlines

(Potential barely-relevant music to accompany post*)

Yesterday, the news- including this blog– was more or less full of Donald Trump bloviating some nonsense about abortion, before claiming he was misquoted, and all right, everyone is very unfair to him. That’s cool. It’s an interesting thing to talk about, since he is a Presidential candidate. Also drawing some interest is that New York and London might be destroyed way sooner than anyone thought.

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Trump on Abortion and Language: The Media Still Treats Him Like A Real Person

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I mean, just look at this guy, will you? Image from MSNBC.

OK, so Donald Trump is going to be doing another townhall-style thing with Chris Matthews tonight, which means two things: 1) you are going to be hearing a lot about “my old boss Tip O’Neil (the over/under on mentions by Matthews is 987), and 2) you’re going to be hearing a lot of nonsense which is mistaken for “telling it like it is.” This isn’t deep prognostication; everything said during the show has already been dissected by the media. The real clambake is when Trump stumbled onto abortion, a topic about which he is as ignorant as anything else.

He basically managed to be both cruel and politically stupid, which are rarely the same thing for the GOP. On the one hand, he basically admitted that women would have to be punished if they sought an abortion when it was banned, which is correct, of course. That’s the hideously logical conclusion to making something illegal, although it’s something the GOP doesn’t like to admit. But more than that- and Charles Pierce thinks this is the big one– in doing so, he reminded us all that when you make safe abortions difficult or impossible to obtain, people will get unsafe ones.

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Ostend: Roth, Zweig, and The End of Europe

When Belgium and the rest of the Low Countries fell to the Nazis at the outset of WWII, people around the world saw it in grainy newsreels, filtered impersonally through the impassive eye of a camera lens. As it trickled to us, through history, it got even more abstract, made distant and unreal by dint of black-and-white.

This wasn’t the case, of course, when Belgium was attacked by ISIS last week. We had instant updates, graphic color footage, and the tweets and personal videos recorded by thousands of smartphones. Those who weren’t there were safe and unharmed, of course, but didn’t have the comfort of distance.

Those attacks, and their personal immediacy in our lives, give a certain poignancy to Volker Weirdermann’s non-fiction novel (in the nice formulation of Independent reviewer Lucy Sholes) Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, And The Summer Before The Dark, translated excellently this year by Carol Brown Janeway. In it, a handful of great European writers, including two of the continent’s best, grapple with friendship, love, literature, alcohol, and the looming madness overtaking their homes, ready to burst forth everywhere, as they spend an uneasy summer in the once-idyllic beachfront town on the Belgian coast. Like with today’s social-media carried attacks, we see the end of one reality in an extreme closeup, with unflinching unease.

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EgyptAir Hijacking and Our Weird Formulation on Terrorism

 

A man believed to be the hijacker of the EgyptAir Airbus A-32

Pictured: Not a terrorist. Image from AFP-Getty via BBC

 

Thankfully, the EgyptAir hijacking turned out to just be a guy with a fake suicide vest who may or may not have been distraught about a woman. This was handled with what I can only believe to be typical Cypriot humor.

Earlier, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades had responded to a reporter’s question about whether the hijacker was motivated by romance, by laughing and saying: “Always there is a woman involved.”

That aside, and the “troubling questions” about security we’re told the incident begs, there has been a strange formulation floating around all day. I first saw it in a Times “Morning Briefing”, but you’ve undoubtedly seen something similar. “A hijacker told the pilot he had explosives and threatened to detonate them, officials said, but he may have been motivated by personal factors, not terrorism.”

That’s an odd way to put it, and revealing. Yes, there were no political motivations, which of course means it isn’t terrorism. If he blew himself up, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone involved. Being killed is being killed. It’s the same kind of excuse we have in this country for being solemn for a few minutes after a mass shooting, telling each other that to talk about guns is to “politicize” it, and then going on our way- unless the shooter screams “Allah!” while pulling the trigger.

The San Bernardino shooters had no real connection to ISIS, no more than I do. They just were inspired by them, but there are a million factors that go into why someone decides to kill. They do it for any reasons, whether they are a recruit from Belgium or Adam Lanza or just someone who wants to pick a wolf costume and chooses ISIS, because it just happens to fit perfectly.

That’s why it is strange to say “motivated by personal factors”, and not terrorism. People join terrorist groups for personal factors, because they are angry or lost or feel small, and can be pushed over the edge from despair into inhuman violence by skilled recruiters and peer pressure. Some, yes, are just sociopaths or criminals, and a handful are true believers- but even among them, it is “personal factors”.

We treat terrorism as a free-floating evil, capitalizing the theological construct and applying it to humans, which weirdly robs people of their agency. We don’t see terrorism as an earthly phenomenon with earthly reasons, born from the same violent impluses that have led men to be wolf to men since they first realized that pain wasn’t something that was just felt- it could be inflicted.

Until we decide that we have to treat this as an actual human event, and not a mythological evil, there is no way to minimize its destructive power, or to lead people away. Saying “it’s not terrorism; it must just be a combination of sickness and desperation” is a perfect exercise in missing the point entiely.

Dear #neverhillary Bernie people…

Today, thanks to the timely death of Antonin Scalia, the most brazen assault on public sector unions of our time was killed. Friederichs vs. California Teachers Association couldn’t survive a 4-4 court, which means the lower court ruling was upheld. If Antonin Scalia was still around, it would have won 5-4, and the ability of unions to fund themselves would have been gutted. The public sector- the last great hope of the middle class, which is why it is under constant assault- would have collapsed into a race-to-the-bottom spiral.

This isn’t the last attempt at this. Public sector unions show that unions can still work, which is why they have to be destroyed. A conservative justice will tilt the balance again. It’s why the resistance to Merrick Garland has been so implacable. Conservatives are hoping that they can hold out til next year, when a GOP President will nominate a justice to finally kill off unions (among other things).

But please, remind me why there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary and Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

The Wisconsinization of Illinois

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“Nice work, Walker!” Image from ChicagoNow

I’ve always loved Wisconsin. It’s fun to make fun of, but I have never once not had a great time in the state, whether camping up north or near Kettle Morain, hanging out by the lake in Milwaukee, relaxing in Door County with my lovely bride, reveling in the weirdness of Madison, or spending time at scenic Lake Ripley, my favorite spot, Wisconsin is always warm and hospitable. It’s got a great drinking culture, which doesn’t so much revolve around experimental cocktails as much as “the more the merrier”, and a great attitude toward eating. If there is one thing over which Scott Walker and I can bond, it’s ham, and the desire to eat more of it, at all hours. Ham for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can’t go wrong.

But ham is probably the only area in which Walker and I would agree on anything (although we could both confirm that empirical reality that he won’t be President, though I imagine we have different feelings about that). One other thing to love about Wisconsin was its progressive tradition, which came about naturally, from workers and farmers, as a reaction to the power of capital and its corrupting nature. That’s also why the backlash in Wisconsin was always so fierce, whether that was the union hating Herb Kohler Sr or the drunken lout McCarthy. Now, that backlash has reached its apex, as Walker and his pet legislature have turned this great state into their personal Koch-funded experiment, destroying voting rights, the social safety net, corporate accountability, and the environment. In short, trying to wreck everything that is great about Wisconsin.

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